View north from Hope Pass in Colorado


Runtrails' Home Page




More Photos

Appalachian Trail Journal



CT trail marker


Map from the Colorado Trail Foundation's poster.






Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
"Do not go where the path may lead,
go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


There were a few times today where we weren't exactly sure we were on the correct path, but it helped that Bighorn race committee Rich Garrison and some other volunteers took "weed-eaters" out on this section of trail yesterday to clear some of the grass and foliage out of the way before the race. I overshot the nearly straight-up-grunt to Horseshoe Ridge a little bit, not realizing the trail grooming had ended. I was going "instead where there is no path" to leave a trail, I guess.

OK, so I'm not supposed to take that quote so literally . . .

Today Jim and I tackled one of the biggest climbs in the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail 100-miler. Runners in the other three races have the privilege of coming down this spectacular drainage area, but don't have to go up it.

Our race begins 1 miles from the Tongue River Canyon trailhead at an elevation of about 4,200 feet. It proceeds uphill for about 7 miles, mostly along the river, to Horse Creek Ridge at an elevation of about 8,000 feet. Most of that 3,800-foot gain is in the last four miles, making for a rather strenuous start to this rugged race. In addition, there are countless smaller ups and downs in that climb, so the gain is actually more than 4,000 feet.

The temptation for runners is to go too hard on this climb. Folks have been tapering for several weeks and are champing at the bit to RUN. It is early in the race when everyone has the most energy. It'd be nice to build up a time cushion. Let's just see how fast we can get up there on the ridge!!

Bad idea. That can come back to haunt you later in a race as long and difficult as this one. It's not even the toughest climb in the race. That comes between 30 and 48 miles, after dark for most runners. Go too hard on the first climb, and you're likely to DNF the race.

The elevation profile below of the Bighorn 100-miler is courtesy of Russ Evans, a Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) friend of ours who is also running this race. That first ascent on the left is what we ran and hiked today, then ran back down. As you can see, there are lots of little jags where the trail undulates.

Since a hundred miles are compressed side to side more than the elevation in this profile, the climbs and descents look especially steep! Regardless, an almost 4,000-foot climb right out of the box is difficult, as is the even greater climb one third of the way through the race. Then there's that nasty ascent from about 66-69 miles . . . 

We wanted an idea of how long it'll take us to do this initial climb on race day, so I encouraged Jim to go on ahead at his faster pace. I wanted to be free to take a bunch of photos because I probably won't carry the camera during the race.

We began at the Tongue River Canyon trailhead, which made the climb only 6 miles up to Horse Creek Ridge, where we turned around and came back down. A net drop of 3,800 feet sounds delightful, but imagine doing that on tired legs at 89-95 miles into the race! Although it wasn't stressful on our legs today, it sure will be on race day.

Here are two attractive flowers found in the canyon now. The first is a delicate Sego Lily, the second, Globemallow:


With the little ups and downs, we did at least 8,000 feet of elevation gain and loss today in only 12 miles. Will we feel that in our knees and quads tomorrow? Probably not. Hopefully, we've done enough long hills in training this spring to prevent any soreness from this run.

Jim beat me to the top by only ten minutes, despite my taking about 40 photos on the way up! I could see him ahead of me most times I looked up. It is all single-track trail until the last mile up the ridge, when it follows a rough 4WD road. The trail is sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky.

After passing the place in the canyon where we stopped in our first run through here, we crossed the log bridge, below, where the Lower Sheep Creek aid station will be located on Saturday during the race:

From here up to Horse Creek Ridge is mostly open meadows with one section of trees. There are numerous false summits.

The surrounding terrain is gorgeous: reddish rock escarpments to the right, the Tongue River and other creeks in the drainage area to the left, colorful wildflowers and green grasses all around, some aspens quaking in the breeze, large, lichen-blotched boulders here and there. Add in an intense blue sky and puffy white clouds, and you have a view that can almost take your mind off the effort it takes to climb higher and higher.

Here are some more photos I took on the way up and down:



Dave Westlake warned us Saturday about seeing some rattlesnakes in this section on a recent training run, so we didn't take Cody with us today. We were very vigilant, watching not only the trail but along the sides so we could see or hear any rattlers that might be out. The only one we saw going up to the ridge was a fat, freshly-killed rattler we later learned Rich killed the previous day. We didn't see the second one his group killed.

The flowers became more dense and beautiful as we climbed higher and higher, especially between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. We saw many of the same kinds of flowers I noted yesterday.

There is one stand of aspens that was full of blue Lupines in bloom:

About two miles from the top of the ridge runners pass a muddy area (Fence Spring) with good water, then run along a barbed wire fence for about a mile. The flowers were rampant along here, just fabulous.

That's Horse Creek Ridge in the background (finally!). Notice the drainage trenches formed by melting snow on the side of the mountain. There were still a few patches of snow on top but not on the course.

This is close to where I missed the sharp right turn up a primitive "road" that takes runners up to the ridge. One of the steepest little climbs/descents in the race is on this little road. Gonna hurt coming down that thing late in the race!

The next picture shows the dirt road and where we turned around today. On race day, we'll keep going toward the Upper Sheep Creek aid station.

It took me 2:28 to make it to the top of the ridge. Jim got there ten minutes faster. Considering all the time I spent taking pictures, I was pleased. So was Jim. We weren't as tired as we expected, either. Good sign.

We hung out about half an hour to acclimate and enjoy the 360-degree panorama. I took more photos from this vantage point and we both laid down on the grass and flowers, absorbing the warmth of the sun. Jim's looking at the canyon and valley through which we just climbed.


Although it was in the upper 80s down in Dayton and Sheridan, it was probably in the low 60s on Horse Creek Ridge. The wind made it feel cooler. I got chilly in my singlet and shorts (too lazy to put on the shirt I was carrying in my pack), and decided to head on back down. Runners in this race have to be prepared for quite a variance in temperatures at the different elevations.

Jim took this picture of me soon after we started back down, at the top of that steep section of road:

We ran down to the canyon much faster, staying pretty close together on the descent. That would prove to be a very wise move. We could feel the temperature rise higher and higher as we dropped lower and lower. I took a few photos and ran faster to catch back up to Jim each time.

On the way down I noticed what looks like Steamboat Point, the rock formation we saw previously on Hwy. 14, from another vantage point:


Here we're entering the forested section of the upper Tongue River Canyon:

We were moving along at a pretty good clip (for us!) through the canyon, having a lively debate about the merits of my carrying a spare Camelbak bladder during the race. On Saturday, we realized my 100-oz. bladder had a tiny tear and was losing water too fast for me to use it. I had to substitute a 20-oz. water bottle and replenish it at the springs we passed. That worked OK during that particular training run, but what would I do on race day if my other Camelbak bladder sprung a leak on the long, lonely night section where the aid stations are farther apart because I'll be moving slower?

My solution is to take another very lightweight empty bladder in my pack behind the one with water in it. Jim argued that I can't possibly be prepared for every contingency or my pack will be too heavy hauling "spares" of various types of gear or supplies.

Jim was running six to eight feet in front of me. About two miles from the truck, he was so engrossed in our conversation about what to carry for emergencies that he lost his concentration enough to inadvertently step on or next to a big 'old rattlesnake lying right in the trail! He let out a yelp and did a quick little dance as he looked down and saw the snake slithering into the brush.

How ironic that we weren't carrying a snake bite kit in rattlesnake territory when we maybe could have used it.

To be continued in the next entry . . .

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

Previous       Next

Send an e-mail message to Sue & Jim  

2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil